In Wendell Berry’s short story “That Distant Land,” the narrator returns to his rural childhood home to help tend his dying grandfather and gets back in touch not only with the land, but with the work of tobacco farming. The story conveys not only a love for the land, but also insights to how farming as a vocation attests to farmers’ special qualities. Though the narrator has lived and worked in an unnamed city for years, he returns to take care of his elderly grandfather and assist with running his tobacco farm.
Though forced to return to the country, he speaks of it with reverence and without seeming to miss city life; there is clearly no sense of the city’s superiority, and he never looks down on farmers as ignorant, backward, or any other derogatory trait. Much of the story focuses on the tobacco harvest, in which neighboring farmers help each other cut and load the year’s crops. Here, Berry gives clear insights on the vocation of farming and sees it as rather noble in its own way, and very distinct from white-collar careers. First, he sees his neighbors’ work as a craft, even an art: “. . .
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[They] worked well, as smoothly and precisely as dancers. To see them moving side by side against the standing crop . . . was momentous and beautiful, and touchingly, touchingly mortal” (315). They also approach the work seriously but without formality or decorum; the men are free to be themselves yet are valued for their hard work and skill. Often, they sing or tell stories as they go, working steadily but without a sense of pressure or dislike for their labor. They seem at one with the land and each other, and while they could make it competitive, they refrain from this, which shows a degree of respect for the older, slower-moving men.
In this capacity, even elderly Jarrat is valued; as he says of himself, “I’m old and wore out and not worth a damn. But every row I cut is a cut row” (314), meaning that while he can no longer compete, he can still contribute, and he is respected for this. A strong sense of community guides this, allowing anyone who can contribute to do so and declaring no one redundant if they can work. The narrator finds that while his presence is welcomed, he is also kept in his place by older men, who subtly remind him that he lacks not only his grandfather’s age, but also the wisdom and experience that accompany it.
When he wears a pair of his grandfather’s shoes to the fields one day, an older neighbor sidles up in a friendly manner and tells him, “making the truth plain and bearable to us both: ‘You can wear ‘em, honey. But you can’t fill ‘em’” (316). Here, he realizes that, despite his education and former white-collar career, he is not his grandfather’s equal, since his grandfather’s lifelong success as a farmer speaks volumes about the differences between the two men. In farming, skill and longevity matter most.
When the narrator’s grandfather dies, it reveals not only his neighbors’ affection for him, but also attests to the kind of leadership that exists among farmers. Age is the key to the hierarchy, not education or other non-essential attributes, since longevity at the vocation attests to one’s success. The grandfather had been the town’s oldest male; upon his death, the mantle of leadership passed to the oldest survivor without any discussion. The narrator describes the moment when they learn of his grandfather’s passing: “We were, I realized, waiting on Jarrat.
It was Elton’s farm, but Jarrat was now the oldest man, and we were waiting on him” (318). They seem to instinctively equate age with experience and authority. The story shows farming not as drudgery, but as a strongly communal activity, almost as an art. It bonds people to the land and each other in a non-competitive way and respects age and experience as much as hard work, and it gives those engaged in it a sense of perspective and where they belong within their community. Berry, Wendell. That Distant Land. Washington DC: Shoemaker Hoard, 2004.
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